A pink and blue fairytale castle with several towers of varying heights
Planning & Tips

14 Steps to Planning a Disney Vacation Anywhere in the World

Planning and budgeting for a Disney vacation is complicated and fun and a little bit time consuming. Now that you’ve heard a little bit of the backstory behind our Disney Global Tour (if you didn’t catch that, you can find it here), I’d like to share more about our planning process. 

We used these steps to plan our entire Disney Global Tour, but the same steps can be used to plan a trip to just one location or even a Disney cruise. Taking some time to get organized can reduce the possibility for mishaps and extra stress both before and during the trip. We earned this vacation! We want it to be fun!

1. Do Your Research

  • Spend time familiarizing yourself with all of the different options.
  • Collect your findings in an organized way that you can make sense of later.

Step one is so important! You have to know what’s available to you before you can make the most of the time you have. Whether you’re doing an around-the-world tour, or one week in Orlando, or just one day at Disneyland Paris, research is your friend. The more you know about your destination in advance, the better.

Before going through the next thirteen steps, research each one and keep track of your results. I tend to write my findings in iPhone notes – a separate note for each step – or in an old-fashioned notebook, but you could use a spreadsheet or Pinterest or whatever works best for you. The most important thing is that you can easily access your findings when it comes time to make your bookings.

2. Select Your Dates

  • Look at school and work schedules.
  • Research for deals on flights, hotels, and vacation packages.
  • Check what the weather is typically like that time of year.
  • Look at the crowd calendar for your destination park, if one is available.
  • Check the official park websites to see if any construction or ride closures might negatively impact your trip.

A wide variety of factors might affect the dates you select. Maybe your dates are pretty fixed because of school vacations or work obligations. If you have a little more leeway, you can see which dates will get you the overall best deal on flights and hotels. Sometimes there are some great package deals that include park tickets and dining plans. 

Crowd calendars can be found here for OrlandoAnaheim, and Tokyo.

Even if you’re hitting the parks when all of the blogs out there will tell you not to go, at least you’ll know what some of the issues might be. Forewarned is forearmed!

A person dressed as Mickey Mouse, dressed in a black tuxedo coat and red pants motions a sign of welcome in front of a fairytale castle

3. Set Your Budget and Start Saving

  • Add up projected totals for flights, hotels, ground transportation, meals, insurance, and park tickets.
  • Add a few hundred dollars on top of that to allow for unexpected price increases, souvenirs, and any unforeseen factors.
  • Set a savings goal per paycheck or per month and aim to hit that target to pay off the expenses as they come due.

Saving and Planning

AJ has been planning and saving for this trip since before he met me. Even so, we’ve had to cut back on our spending in several ways. We cook most of our meals at home, we’re not spending much at all on other travel this year, and we’ve had to turn down more than one invitation to a concert or a show.

He did a lot of research on what needed to be booked when, and he planned to have the money ready when the booking needed to happen. For example, we had to be ready to book our hotel in Tokyo the second it became available, whereas he knew that booking the hotel in California a little closer to the trip wouldn’t be a problem.  We obviously don’t need to pay for food until we’re actually on the trip, so we still have a little time to save up that money.

Delayed Payment Options

Orlando, Anaheim, and Hong Kong offer delayed payment options when staying on property, although sometimes you can get a better deal by paying up front. You book with a deposit, but you don’t need to be paid in full until a few weeks before your stay. In Tokyo, you can pay a deposit to secure the room and then pay in full when you check out. Paris and Shanghai require payment in full at the time of booking.

4. Book Your Flights

  • Which airport is the closest to your destination park? Which is the cheapest to fly into from your home airport?
  • Do you have any points you can use?
  • What ground transportation options are available when your flight lands? How does that factor into the cost and convenience of your flights?
  • What are the luggage rules of the airline?

Points and Miles

We hardly spend a dime that doesn’t involve earning airline miles. I have my American Airlines card, and AJ has his JetBlue card. Because of that, we’re both flying from New York to Orlando and Orlando to Los Angeles completely on points.

Cost vs. Convenience

When booking our other flights, we had a lot to consider. Often times, there was the convenient choice and then there was the cheapest choice. In our case, budget usually won out over convenience. We’re splurging on other parts of the trip, so flights had to be cheap.

For example, when flying from LA to Tokyo, Haneda airport is much closer to the Disney parks, but the flight into Narita was a lot less expensive. We looked at ground transportation and found out that there’s a relatively inexpensive bus that will take us directly from Narita to Disney. We decided we could handle sitting for an hour on a bus after a 12-hour flight, especially since it meant saving hundreds of dollars. If it had meant three different train transfers with all of our luggage, we might have chosen to fly into Haneda.

Believe it or not, we actually only paid about $1,100 each for flights. Not bad for a global tour.

The Weight Factor

When we looked at flights from Shanghai to Hong Kong, there was an airline with very low weight limits for checked and carry-on luggage. A five pound limit for a carry-on? Nope, sorry. Not going to happen. We’re taking all of our electronics in our carry-ons. So in that case, it made more sense to pay slightly more for a different airline and avoid the headache and cost of paying luggage fees.

5. Buy Travel Insurance

  • What will your total trip cost be?
  • Does your health insurance cover you when you’re abroad?
  • Are you planning to do any sort of “extreme” sports while you travel (like ziplining or skydiving)?

The Case for Insurance

As soon as you put a deposit of any kind toward your trip, buy travel insurance. You don’t need to have paid the trip in full, and in fact, you can often get more benefits by purchasing within the first few days of your first deposit. It’s very tempting to skip this step, I know. Chances are, you will probably never use your travel insurance. But especially if you’re traveling abroad, you really, really should get it. Don’t think of it as wasted money.

First of all, your health insurance is probably not going to cover you overseas. In the U.S., depending on what kind of insurance you have, it may not even cover you in another state. (I learned this the hard way. Don’t even get me started.) What if you develop a kidney stone while traveling and need immediate medical attention? You could face a very hefty bill.

Secondly, life happens. None of us knows what challenges will come up tomorrow. What if your employer decides they won’t approve your vacation after all? What if someone in your family becomes ill? No matter how much money you’re spending on your trip, my guess is that you’d rather have the option of getting most, if not all, of it back, in the event you can’t travel or need to come home early.

Our Choice

In the past, I’ve used Travel Guard and have been happy with them. When researching for this trip, it seemed like their rates had gone up significantly. I poked around some different travel websites and came across this article from Nomadic Matt that recommends World Nomads.

We were able to cover our trip with World Nomads for about a third of the price of Travel Guard. Note that the maximum trip cost they’ll reimburse is $10,000. They’re actually more comprehensive in the types of sports activities they’ll cover than other companies, which is great if you are planning some outdoor adventures on your sightseeing days.

Read Carefully

As with any insurance (or anything really), make sure you read all of the fine print before purchasing so that you know exactly which benefits you’re getting. Also, feel free to call them with any questions. I did, and they were very helpful!

Two people dresses as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse hold hands on a long street with a pink and blue fairytale castle in the background

6. Book Your Hotel, Park Tickets, and Dining Plan

  • Which options are in your budget, both on- and off-property?
  • How easy will it be to get back and forth between your hotel and the parks?
  • Is an on-premise gym important to you? What about a laundry room?
  • Are you able to save money by booking a package deal that includes park tickets and/or a dining plan?
  • Does a dining plan make sense for you? Are you a big eater?

Hotels

One of the “rules” of this trip, as laid out by AJ in his official Disney Challenge Handbook (just kidding, there is no official handbook… at least I don’t think there is…), was that we would have to stay on property at every park we visited. It will give us a more immersive experience. Plus, it’s generally super convenient.

Accommodations definitely take up the biggest part of our budget. We chose our hotels at each park based on that park’s unique situation. For example, we’re trying to be somewhat budget-conscious in Florida, the park that’s closest to where we live, whereas we’re splurging a bit in some of the Asian parks. We can easily make it back to Florida. Shanghai might be more difficult to revisit.

Park Tickets

Almost all of the parks offer the option to purchase your park tickets as part of a package when booking on-property accommodations. Usually, this is the way to go. Think about how many days you want to spend and how much flexibility you might want.

In Florida, we opted for the Park Hopper Plus option, since we’d be able to use the Plus Visits to spend separate days at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. It ended up saving us a significant amount of money.

In Paris, the only package being offered was five park tickets for a four-night stay. We’re planning on spending three (or maybe only two) days in the Paris parks, so that definitely didn’t make sense for us, but it was still less expensive than purchasing tickets separately.

Dining Plans

Orlando, Anaheim, and Paris are the parks that offer dining plans. Here’s where we had to do quite a bit of research on various blogs. The general consensus seems to be that dining plans really only make sense if you’re a big eater and tend to order expensive things. If you like to order steak a lot, then you will save money with a dining plan. If not, it’s probably not worth it.

AJ is not a big breakfast person most days, and I’m not the type to order steak at every meal. In Florida, we plan to have some groceries delivered to the hotel with Instacart. We’ll save some money by making breakfast in our room and packing sandwiches for a few other meals.

Sometimes you can find a great deal during non-peak times where the dining plan is included for free. If you can nab that deal, great! We didn’t have any such luck.

7. Book Your Airport Transfers and Ground Transportation

  • Is there official Disney transportation available? If so, is it available when you need it?
  • Is there public transportation available? Does it involve a lot of transfers?
  • How much freedom and independence do you want/need with your transportation?

Even though Disney World and Disneyland each offer some sort of official Disney transportation, we opted to rent cars in both places. We found good deals for car rentals, so the convenience factor won out. We want to have the freedom to be on our own schedules and the ability to visit friends or family who live nearby (if we have time!).

In Tokyo, as previously mentioned, we’re taking the Tokyo Disney Resort Bus from Narita to our hotel. The Hong Kong and Shanghai parks are so close to the airports we’re flying into that we’ll be taking taxis back and forth. All three of these cities also have good public transportation to get around while we’re there.

Paris offers a super fast train directly from Charles de Gaulle airport to Marne-la-Vallée, the Disneyland stop. Unfortunately for us, the last train leaves at around 9:30pm, which we’ll probably just miss after clearing customs. We knew this when we booked the flight. We could still take public transportation, but it involves three different trains. No bueno. We found a private car transfer for 60 Euros, so we still saved a lot of money overall by booking the flight we did.

8. Mark Your Calendar

Part of being organized is setting your future self up for success. The little things tend to be forgotten as we get caught up in our everyday lives. I like to help myself out by setting reminders to pop up the day or week before something needs to be done.

Depending on the type of Disney vacation you’re embarking upon, you’ll probably have a specific dates that you’re allowed to book dining reservations, FastPasses, and make your final payments. You’ll want to stay on top of this because things book up fast!

Some reminders you might consider:

  • Booking hotels and park tickets
  • When you need to be paid in full (consider earlier reminders for paying in increments)
  • Booking dining reservations
  • FastPass advanced booking, if you’re staying on property in Orlando
  • When you need to get your visa (for US citizens, this will only apply for Shanghai)
  • Booking shore excursions, dining, and port arrival if you’re cruising

9. Make Your Dining Reservations

  • What kind of food do you like?
  • Do you want to take the time for sit-down meals, or is quick service better for you?
  • Are you able to get a package reservation deal for priority seating at a show, such as Rivers of Light or Fantasmic?
  • What have other travelers said on blogs, Trip Advisor, etc. about each restaurant?
  • What kinds of theming would be the most enjoyable for you and your travel companions?

I’m a bit of a foodie, whereas AJ likes just about any food, so I was the one to take the initiative on researching restaurants at all the parks. I really hate bad theme park food, so I was so grateful to be able to learn about other people’s experiences. Thanks, Internet!

Aside from quality of food, a huge consideration for a Disney dining experience is, of course, the theming. For each park, I aimed to choose places that cannot be found anywhere else. In Orlando, I really want to check out the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater and Jiko – The Cooking Place, among others. The overwhelming consensus about the Tokyo parks points me toward Magellan’s at DisneySea. The food is reportedly not that good in Disneyland Paris, so we aren’t currently planning to spend money on sit-down meals there.

10. Plan Your FastPasses

  • Which rides tend to have the longest wait times?
  • Which rides are the most important for you to get on?
  • How many, if any, fast passes are you allowed to book ahead of time?
  • Do you have any other reservations that you need to take into account when booking FastPasses?
  • What date/time are you allowed to book?

Cut Your Wait Time

Sure, sometimes the queue for a Disney ride is more than half the fun. When I went on the Jungle Cruise for the first time a few months ago, I loved the theming in the line but hated the ride. Is that Disney sacrilege? Am I going to get sent to the castle dungeon for saying it?

No queue is still fun after two hours. FastPasses are an amazing way to maximize your time. Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, but if you have a good idea of what you want to do and how you’re going to accomplish it, your visit will be much more enjoyable. Don’t just wing it!

Different Procedures for Each City

There’s all sorts of information out there about which ones to grab first when booking. AJ likes this guide for the Orlando parks, and we are more or less sticking to the strategies outlined there. Here are guides for AnaheimParis, Tokyo Disneyland, and Tokyo DisneySeaSadly, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong still have paper FastPasses only, so we will be part of the stampeding crowd each day when those parks open, running to get our passes.

FastPasses in all parks are free. At Disneyland, you’ll need to pay to book them in the app specifically, but that will then include Photo Pass as well. In Shanghai, in addition to the regular FastPasses with assigned times, there’s something called Premier Access that you can purchase. It’s basically the same as a FastPass, but you don’t have to be confined by an assigned time. 

AJ and Katie at Disneyland – January, 2018

11. Think About the Extras

  • What kinds of special activities are available in the park you’re visiting?
  • If you’re going to Walt Disney World in Florida, do you want to buy a specialty Magic Band?
  • Are there any parades or shows you want to see?
  • What about dress-up activities such as getting a makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (for the kids) or Disneybounding (for adults)?
  • If you’re going on a Disney cruise, are you interested in fish extenders, magnet door decorating, or various passenger exchanges?

There are all sorts of things you can do to make your trip extra entertaining, whether it’s your first trip to a Disney park or your tenth. AJ is a seasoned Disney-goer. He’s had fun on past trips collecting pressed pennies, visiting every park in Disney World in one day, and the A Pirate’s Adventure treasure hunt in the Magic Kingdom.

For this trip, we’ll be spending a lot of time in the Magic Kingdom in particular, so we will have time to do some sort of extra activity. We don’t know what it’s going to be yet. Any suggestions?

Disneybounding

For those who don’t know, you’re not technically allowed to dress up as a character if you’re an adult in a Disney park. The way people get around this is by wearing clothing that’s suggestive of a character without actually being a costume. This is called Disneybounding. We won’t be doing any Disneybounding on our Global Tour, but it’s pretty cool to see some of the creative ideas people come up with.

Cruise Extras

Cruises offer all sorts of extras to sign up for, such as shore excursions, character meals, various wine and liquor tastings, and more. And don’t forget spa treatments! Once you’re on board, there are movies and shows to see and tons of other activities for kids and adults.

If you’re going on a Disney cruise, the best thing to do is to join the Facebook group for your ship and itinerary. Trust me, there probably is one. It’s a great way to get in touch with people who have similar interests. There might be gift exchanges, recipe exchanges, candy exchanges, and more. So many exchanges!

12. Don’t Forget Sightseeing

  • What other sights are nearby your destination park, and which ones are you interested in visiting?
  • Can you group things together by area and spend one day or partial day in each area?
  • What do you realistically have time for, allowing for travel time and a reasonable amount of time at each attraction?
  • What kind of ground transportation is available to your desired sightseeing spots?

Think Outside the Disney Box

Disney is great and all, but I’m all about being a well-rounded traveler. I’m a museum fanatic with a penchant for history and, of course, theatre and opera. I’m the type of traveler who likes to see where the back alleyways lead and check out the restaurants on the outskirts of town. AJ, happily, is even more adventurous than I am.

After setting our dates, we ended up with a few sightseeing days to play with. Since most of the trip will be spent at Disney parks, which is really AJ’s domain, the sightseeing days were up to me to plan. I agonized over where we would spend those precious days. Could I really handle traveling to a city and not seeing the city itself?

Japan has been a dream destination of mine for years, so I eventually decided to take most of our sightseeing days there. We might have a couple of days in other places, but we’ll see. If not, just another reason to go back!

Think Geographically

For any city I’m visiting, I like to get organized by making a list of everything I want to do and then grouping those things by area or neighborhood. That way it’s easy to create an itinerary for each day to minimize traveling around between sights and maximize the number of places I can see.

I have our sightseeing days in Japan planned out essentially to the minute. I’m pretty type-A like that. But I’ve had enough experience traveling to know that things don’t always work out exactly as planned. I have in mind a few things that can be taken off the schedule if we’re running behind for any reason.

13. Make Your Packing List

  • What can you leave at home to lighten your suitcase?
  • Do you have coordinating separates that you can mix and match?
  • Does your hotel have a laundry room on premises that you can use?
  • Do you have shoes you’re comfortable walking in for long periods of time?
  • Do you have the right plug adapters for your destination?
  • What kind of electric current is standard at your destination?

Pack Light

On my first extended trip, which lasted around two months, I packed practically my whole wardrobe. My suitcase was so huge and heavy that when I had to carry it up and down the stairs of a train station outside of Prague, I couldn’t. Lucky for me, I had a friend who helped me, but I learned a big lesson that day. I do not need ten pairs of shoes, five “just in case” dresses, and twelve heavy books when I travel.

Many Disney resorts and other hotels have a laundry room on premises. On our Global Tour, we’re planning to take two weeks’ worth of clothing and do laundry a various points along the way. Such a convenient feature!

You’ll obviously have to take any prescription medications you need with you. Consider bringing travel sizes of toiletries or buying toiletries at your destination, depending on where you’re traveling. Big bottles of shampoo and lotion weigh a lot and take up a lot of space.

Mix and Match

Having a versatile wardrobe with lots of mix-and-match separates is very useful when trying to pack light. When I was shopping for cool, lightweight clothing to bring on our trip, I found this great Toad and Co. blue skirt with small, pink/coral-colored dots at REI. I also found a great shirt at REI by Prana that matches the dots in the skirt. But I’m not going to pack a skirt that can only go with one shirt. I made it my mission to find other shirts that would go with the skirt. It took some browsing, but I now have several that could go with that skirt or could go with jeans or shorts.

Bring Comfy Shoes

I also spent quite a bit of time trying to find the right shoes. I wanted to find shoes that would be supportive for walking all day and comfortable for warmer climates, but still stylish. The biggest problem I had was that any shoes that had been featured in some sort of “best walking sandals of 2018” article tended to be out of stock!

In the end I chose these by Olukai and these by Ahnu, and for those I had to scour the internet to find the right color and size. I’m also bringing a pair of running shoes for workouts and longer hikes and a pair of heels for dressy occasions.

Plug In

If you’re traveling internationally, make sure you have the right adapters to plug your electronics into the sockets in your destination country. If the US is your home country, pay special attention if you have anything with a grounding prong, since many adapters don’t have the third hole. Don’t try to plug a three-pronged plug into a two-pronged adapter.

Another thing to be aware of is voltage. Many appliances, such as hair dryers, do not work at different voltages. You may even end up starting a fire! Since hair dryers are pretty standard at hotels, leave yours at home, or plan to buy one at your destination. If you regularly use a straightener, curling iron, or electric shaver, make sure you check carefully for voltage requirements.

Most laptops, phones, and tablets these days do fine with varying levels voltage, but it doesn’t hurt to double check.

14. Complete Your Administrative Preparation

  • Are there any official park apps you can download? What about other travel apps?
  • Do you have your visa?
  • Do you have a least a little cash in the currency of your destination country?
  • If traveling internationally, is your passport expiration date at least six months after the end of your trip
  • Scan copies of your itinerary, insurance info, passport, and credit cards and email them to yourself and a trusted family member or friend.

Apps Are Your Friends

Every Disney park location, except for Tokyo, has an official park app you can download on your phone. For many parks, you can use the apps to book FastPasses, see wait times, or just as a handy map. You should definitely download and utilize the apps. They are a big convenience and time saver.

There are tons of other travel apps out there as well. TripAdvisor, TripCase, GlobeConvert, and Google Translate are just a few that I find useful.

Get Your Visa

AJ and I need to get a visa for the Shanghai portion of our journey. As citizens of the US and Canada, that’s the only tourist visa we’ll need. My best friend went to China a couple of years ago, and she said that the process of getting a visa was a Pain. That’s right, with a capital P. AJ and I will be using a visa service to help us. We feel this will be money well spent.

To Cash or Not to Cash?

I don’t like traveling with too much cash. I’ve found that getting some money out of an ATM at my destination airport usually works very well and gets me a good exchange rate. More and more places are also accepting credit cards, even internationally. However, sometimes there are ground transportation expenses that require cash, and sometimes you might be too exhausted coming off an international flight to go searching for an ATM. You may want to get a little bit of currency from your bank to carry with you. It’s really personal preference.

Check Your Passport

To grant entry, most countries require that your passport doesn’t expire until at least six months after your visit ends. I think this seems silly, but there must be a reason. Make sure you check that if you’re traveling internationally.

Scan Copies of Everything

This is really just preparing for the worst-case scenario, like getting mugged or severely injured while traveling. We all hope these things won’t happen (and most likely they won’t!), but you and your loved ones will be thankful you prepared, if for some reason something does happen.

Scan copies of your passport photo page, travel insurance policy, full itinerary (including hotel addresses and contact numbers), and copies of your credit cards (front and back). Then email the packet to yourself and a trusted family member or friend. If you don’t have a scanner at work or home, I recommend the CamScanner app. Or you can always just take pictures.

Learn the Language

I’m not suggesting you need to be fluent in the language when visiting a foreign country. However, it is generally very appreciated if you at least try to speak a few words. By that I mean please, thank you, and excuse me. You’d be amazed at how much you can communicate at a shop or restaurant by saying please and pointing at what you want. If you have time to learn more than that, fantastic! The more you know of the local language, the more enriching your experience will be.

Five people dressed as the Disney characters Pluto, Minnie, Mickey, Donald Duck, and Goofy pose in front of a pink and blue fairytale castle

These steps have been so useful to us in planning our Global Tour. Stayed tuned for more on that later this year!

Do you have any tips for planning the perfect Disney vacation? Comment below!

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